Monday, February 2, 2009

The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz / Carl Schurz -- NY: McClure Company, 1908.

I knew Carl Schurz was among the most influential German-Americans in our political history, but I had no idea how engaging his writing was until I read his Reminiscence. After a long life at the heart of German and American politics, Schurz retired to write over a thousand pages describing his life from his childhood to 1869. His three volumes of reminiscences are remarkably engaging.

The first volume is an account of his life in Germany (1829-1852). The highlight of which was his involvement in the failed 1848 revolution. Schurz was trapped by Prussian soldiers in the siege of Rastatt. As a Prussian citizen, Schurz correctly expected to be executed when the the town surrendered. Consequently, he and two Prussian companions attempted to escape through a storm water pipe that led out of town past the Prussian troops. Finding the exit guarded, they returned to the town to hide in the loft of a shed. With the help of a sympathetic neighbor, they managed to escape later, through the storm water pipe, and then to France.

Not long after, he returned to Germany under a false passport to free one the leading revolutionists, Gotfried Kinkel, from Spandau Prison. The events Schurz recounts are vividly told and as exciting as any piece of good fiction.

The second volume recounts his life in America. Settling in Wisconsin, Schurz became the leading German language orator advocating the abolition of slavery. His efforts led him to participate in every presidential campaign, save one, from 1856 to nearly the end of his life in 1906. Upon Lincoln's election, Schurz became the US Ambassador to Spain, but quickly was allowed to resign from the post for a commission in the Union Army.

Brigadier General Schurz led troops in numerous important battles, including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. At Chancellorsville, his troops bore the brunt of General T.J. Jackson's crushing attack, and he spent much of the subsequent months (even years) refuting scurrilous criticisms of his "Dutch" soldiers. His defense of the performance of the German troops in the Civil War raises interesting questions in light of the nativist criticism of them.

Following the War, Schurz became a Senator representing the State of Missouri and worked hard in defense of equal rights for freedmen. In volume three of his Reminiscences, Schurz describes the political battle surrounding the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Schurz shows himself to be a staunch defender of what he thought would be Lincoln's reconstruction policy, steering a course between the Radical Republicans and Johnson's policies. He joined with the Liberal Republicans opposing Grant's nomination. He was also instrumental in defeating President Grant's efforts to annex the Dominican Republic.

Later, Schurz became Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes Administration. These later years (1869-1904) are described in a 140 page essay by Frederick Bancroft and William A. Dunning which concludes the third volume of his Reminiscences. By the end of his career, Schurz had essentially left the Republican Party to become an Independent. He worked particularly hard against the spoils system and in favor of good government. He also strongly resisted the imperialist policies of later Presidents.

Schurz's Reminiscences make for delightful reading and offer an interesting lens through which to view 19th century American politics.

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